Keynote address by Minister Ms Lulama Xingwana on the occasion of African Women Writer’s Symposium at Windybrow, Johannesburg

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25 Aug 2010

Programme Director,
Women Writers from Africa and the Diaspora,
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am both humbled and honoured to address you all this morning. It is heartwarming to see so many women writers gathered here both local and from Africa and the Diaspora.

The title of this gathering of African women writers is : “Women’s Words: African Worlds”: renewing a dialogue between African Women Writers and Women of African Descent”.

August is South Africa’s Women’s Month when we honour and pay tribute to women for their contribution to society. Historically 20,000 women from all walks of life marched to the Union Buildings to prevent the extension of the Pass Laws to the African women on the 9th August 1956.  In gratitude of their success, this day has been observed as Women’s day and in more recent years, Women’s Month.  We thought it appropriate to host this gathering during this month.

The Women and Gender Development Directorate of the African Union has announced this decade “The African Decade of Women” (2010 – 2020) and was adopted by the African Union.

According to a document of the African Union (March 1, 2010), “to date the women of Africa, like women elsewhere, have not been included as full, equal and effective stakeholders in processes that determine their lives…. Their role and contribution to national and continental development processes are neither recognised nor rewarded; they continue to be absent from decision-making; and although they bear the brunt of conflicts, women are generally not included in peace negotiations or other initiatives…”

Whilst great progress has been achieved in some sectors with more women in National Parliaments and governments however social, economic and cultural inequalities still persist. There is a greater feminization of poverty arising out of the global economic turmoil which has affected the majority of people all over the world. In Africa women continue to till the land yet still fight for access to land. Women seeking ownership rights still have to face and challenge traditional culture in terms of its gender bias.

Yet sustainable economic and social development can only be achieved with the full participation and leadership of women on the African continent. In order to overturn centuries of underdevelopment, women need to position themselves at the centre of development processes. There can be no economic, social and cultural progress without women being at the centre. There can be no genuine development without gender equality and the liberation of women being central to this development. A People’s Revolution is a Women’s Revolution. “Nothing about us without us” has been the rallying call of the Disabled People’s Movement and it is in the same spirit that African women should assert themselves boldly in every aspect of the life of the continent as a whole.

When we look back at history, we now see the past with a gender sensitive lens. We see that at every great gathering of African intellectuals and leadership, women were present as participants. Yet their names are not as prominent in the history books. We recognise today that women such as Anna Cooper participated in the historic first Pan African Congress held in London and organized by W.E. B. du Bois and Henry Sylvester Williams. We know now that women under the auspices of PAWO (Pan African Women Writers Organisation) were represented at the founding meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in Addis.

Today we know that there are African women writers who can ensure that the history of women is written down for future generations, who can convey the emotions, aspirations, suffering and achievements of African women. Women’s literature on the African continent has revealed womanhood and nationhood and ‘post colonial’ experience in a new light and opened endless possibilities for the development of literary genre.

We salute Buchi Emecheta and Ama Atta Aidoo and writers of their generation for their ground-breaking work that have put writing by African women on the world stage as indeed we welcome new works and new writers into the fold.

In South Africa we salute the contributions of earlier generations such as the writing of Phyllis Ntantala and those of the 1976 generation such as Miriam Tlali. We salute the writings of women such as “Call me woman” by Ellen Kuzwayo and “and they didn’t die“by Lauretta Ngcobo as well as “Part of my soul went with him”, a series of interviews and letters of Winnie Madikizela Mandela. We salute South African Nobel Laureate for Literature, Nadine Gordimer, and all her considerable efforts to support writer’s organizations in South Africa over the decades, a role she has fulfilled unflinchingly and with devotion.

In recent years the Ministry of Arts and Culture has secured funding from the National treasury to develop and refurbish community libraries in all the underdeveloped areas of South Africa. As part of this exercise, the Department of Arts and Culture is also supportive of the development of book clubs at libraries and in communities. South African writers’ delegations are often sponsored to attend book fairs and literary festivals around the world. We have also supported the Cape Town International Book Fair as well as the Jozi Book Fair and literary events organized by the Centre for Creative Arts in Durban.

A Book Development Council was launched by my predecessor in June 2007 with the possibility that a greater availability and promotion of literature would contribute to a greater reading.  It was felt that reprints would also raise an awareness of the works of quality produced over the years in previously marginalized languages.

It is against this backdrop that the South African government represented by the Ministry of Arts and Culture in partnership with the Windybrow Centre for the Arts (Pan African centre for the arts based in Johannesburg) has initiated this African Women Writers Symposium. With this in mind, we are inviting African women writers to participate in this first African Women Writers Symposium. We believe that in bringing great literary minds together, we can make a contribution in taking forward the struggle for women’s emancipation and assert women’s voices in both the consolidation and critique of the mission for the realization of an African agenda.

The aim is to celebrate the achievements of our women authors and to offer women a tangible platform to shape the road ahead not only through their writing but in collective projects that can build intra-Africa relations, enhance literary relations with women of African descent residing in Diaspora communities as well as offering their own understanding and analysis of the African condition especially the condition of African women. What a woman wants, desires and is prepared to fight for and to write for are at the heartbeat of this exercise.  We need to bring African writers together to engage in a dialogue about African women’s writing. We need to form a network of the African and Diaspora women writers. We must use this opportunity to highlight the challenges that women writers face both in Africa and in the Diaspora.

Women writers need to utilize this opportunity of the African Decade for Women 2010 to 2020 to form ourselves as a community and to be productive.  In this way we can encourage the emergence of a Pan African Women’s Voice and promote continent-wide projects to strengthen women’s role in the literary arts. It is essential that we promote African women writers to a wide reading public.

I feel extremely privileged to have contributed towards may evolve into a glorious Renaissance in literature on this continent and the Diaspora.  May you be fruitful in your endevours.

Thank you.

Women’s Words: African Worlds web page